Teacher touts British style for schools

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Mike Persaud, a former teacher from Guyana, settled in Richmond Hill 30 years ago bringing with him his British colonial sensibilities. Now Persaud, who has struggled for more than 20 years to teach New York City students, wants to infuse city schools with a little civility.

He described the Brooklyn classroom where he taught as little more than a “warehouse,” where even motivated students could not learn given the environment.

“In Guyana children who live in the poorest villages — at age 11 they can do what they do here at grade 12,” Persaud said on a recent morning. “Is it the discipline? Are the kids naturally bright? No, it’s the system.”

New York teachers cannot read through a page of the most fascinating text, Persaud said, because half the class is jockeying for a hall pass. Hallway sweeps by security guards are common in many of the schools, which he said illustrates that students simply want to escape the classroom.

Following the British or European system — already familiar to an increasing number of New Yorkers from the Caribbean, Nigeria, Ghana, India, Trinidad and Guyana — Persaud recommends drastically smaller school sizes and required entrance exams.

The British education used in many countries is traditionally marked by early testing of its students. Before children leave primary school at age 11 mandatory exams will determine whether they continue into the comprehensive secondary school or are admitted to the more academically exclusive programs.

Regardless of whether a student is admitted to the elite programs, Persaud said the general culture of the national exams sets for students a tone of reverence and discipline in study.

Persaud would like to establish a British-based magnet school for each school district in the city. It would create a second tier of schools for students who fall just short of entrance to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, the city’s most elite high schools whose admissions standards are based on rigorous testing.

Growing up in Guyana in the ‘50s, Persaud said he and his classmates prepared for high school entry exams for years before they actually sat for the tests at age 11. Teachers observed the students and steered them toward the exams in subjects for which they showed an aptitude. Parents sought after-school tutoring to ready them.

“It’s a cultural thing. It’s such a drive,” he said.

But other American educators familiar with the British and European style of schooling are leery of the idea.

Richard Organisciak, the New York City superintendent of alternative high schools and programs, said the British educational philosophy is one that was essentially rejected in this country.

“The European models represent a siphoning out as opposed to embracing in process,” Organisciak said. “And it’s administered at a really unreasonable age of 12 and 13,” he said.

Organisciak, who spent his early childhood in Gilford, England, said many American educators are critical of the tracking system that results from such early testing.

New York offers smaller enrollment within its alternative high schools, 70 of which Organisciak oversees. These schools, while smaller, do not require exclusionary testing and meet the needs of students at the extremes of academic achievement.

But Persaud maintains that a large majority of public school students are left floundering in mainstream classrooms. Beth Anna MoonRay Ferguson, mother of 8-year-old Leonard Ferguson, agrees. She removed her son from public school last year to home school him.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Ferguson sat with Leonard in a Corona park poring over his vocabulary words. At this time last year, he would have been in a traditional classroom. But Ferguson pulled him out.

“The teachers were too stressed out and the children were not getting what they needed,” she said.

Persaud said he also had the good fortune to have his children educated outside the city’s public schools. One daughter was recruited to a private boarding school in New England. The other daughter attends a magnet school in New Jersey.

“I was lucky,” he said.

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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